A Short Review of Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality

TheAtheistsGuideToRealityAlex Rosenberg’s is a professor of philosophy at Duke whose book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality aims to give non-philosophers an overview of reality.

I’ve read numerous books about atheism by atheists, many of which I enjoyed (see my recent review of Carroll). In contrast, Rosenberg’s book is terrible. It contained so many ridiculous and contradictory statements that it’s hard to know even where to begin, so let me make one obvious central objection.

Rosenberg’s entire philosophy of ‘scientism’ is based on his claim that “the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything” (p. 6). Let’s set aside the fact that this statement is self-refuting (how does he obtain knowledge about the truth of that statement?). Throughout the book, he talks about the ‘truth’, ‘true beliefs,’ and ‘knowledge of the truth’ that we can only obtain through science. But what does he mean by these claims?

Later in the book, he’ll very strenuously defend the idea that our thoughts are not ‘about’ things. Yet, bizarrely, he makes numerous statements like this one: “For the last 350 years, physics has been telling us more and more about the world, both at the level of the cosmological -stars, black holes, galaxies- and at the level of the microphysical – the fermions and bosons.” (p. 22)

Consider that statement from Rosenberg’s perspective. On the one hand, he wants to claim that science can give us *knowledge* about all these phenomena. On the other hand, he wants to claim that we don’t have *thoughts* about any of these phenomena. Which is it? How does he reconcile these two claims? Does he have some highly unusual definition of ‘knowledge’? Can we know about things without our thoughts being ‘about’ those things?

These questions are so basic that they could have been raised by a freshman in Phil. 101. One would hope, as the chair of the Department of Philosophy at Duke, that Rosenberg might have considered them. It might have given him something to think ‘about’.